Primo Levi died in Turin, Italy, on April 11, 1987, an apparent suicide. It was reported that he had been depressed following minor surgery. In reality, his suffering had been ever-present since the 1940’s. His great works, beginning with Se questo è un uomo (1947; If This Is a Man, 1959; revised as Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity, 1961) and culminating with The Drowned and the Saved, all dealt with the crucial task of analyzing and facing the Holocaust.
Levi was born in Turin in 1919. He was trained as a chemist, joined the antifascist resistance, and was captured. He was turned over to the Nazis when he identified himself as a Jew in a gesture of courageous, whimsical defiance. He was deported to Auschwitz in 1944. He owed his life to his training as a chemist, for he was put to work in one of the slave-labor industrial complexes in the camp. After liberation, he traversed Eastern Europe and wrote about his wanderings in his second book, La tregua (1963; The Reawakening, 1965). In 1977 he retired as the manager of a Turin chemical factory to devote himself to writing, a sign that he believed that the story and significance of the Holocaust could never be exhausted and that more than ever it had to be conveyed to a new generation far removed from the experience and even the memory of those events. His later works included Il systema periodico (1975; The Periodic Table, 1985), Se non ora, quando? (1982; If Not Now, When?, 1985), and These Moments of Reprieve (1986). He was awarded Italy’s highest literary prize. The fires of Auschwitz had transformed a talented chemist into one of the greatest writers and most astute observers of his century.
The Drowned and the Saved was Levi’s last completed work. It represents the summation of his life’s work and refers to many of his previous writings. It is not a novel but a series of vivid and meditative essays that are a systematic analysis of the extermination camps. These essays are replete with penetrating insights and stunning conclusions.
What seems to have motivated the writing of this great work was Levi’s fear that the memories of the Holocaust—the greatest single crime in human history—would dim with time and would ultimately become a legend. Levi sees himself as Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, having to retell and to clarify the terrible tale for a new generation.
The Drowned and the Saved is divided into a preface, eight concise chapters, and a powerful conclusion. Its overwhelming concern is the need to remember for the sake of justice. Levi recounts the story of the Nazi Schutzstaffel (SS) officers who told the Jewish concentration camp prisoners that no one would later believe their tales of horror because they were too horrible to be believed. This became one of the prisoners’ worst nightmares.
In his second chapter, “The Gray Zone,” Levi shows that there were degrees of evil in the camps, although the difference between the murderers and their victims was clear. The Nazis were guilty of murder, whereas the German bystanders were guilty of turning away and of refusing to help the victims. It is tragic, however, that some of the victims were forced to do things in the camps that they would never have done in normal life. For example, the Sonderkommando, or “Special Squad,” those prisoners of Auschwitz who worked near the crematoria, were given more food and were kept alive for a short time so that they could do their horrendous work of disposing of the dead bodies. Also belonging to this “gray zone” were the functionaries of the Jewish councils appointed by the Nazis to administer the ghettos. Levi brilliantly characterizes Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, the “Jewish elder” of the ód ghetto in Poland, as a man who was corrupted by power yet sought to save Jews.
Chapter 3 deals with the shame of the victims who survived. According to Levi, the prisoners who survived were privileged because of their skills, their knowledge of German, and their connections with the political underground. Many survivors felt guilty for having to look out for themselves and their close friends. Levi reminds the reader, however, that the greatest shame of all belongs to the murderers who planned the crime and to the civilized world that stood by.
Levi devotes a chapter to the importance of communication in human affairs. Those who understood some German in the camps might learn the skills of surviving. What could not be so easily grasped was the useless, gratuitous violence that the Nazis practiced. The extermination of the Jews was preceded by savage and calculated violence and humiliation. The prisoners were tattooed, stripped, and humiliated specifically to destroy their humanity before they were killed.
The final chapters of The Drowned and the Saved are devoted to the exploration of stereotypes of the Holocaust in the present generation and to the analysis of letters to Levi by German readers of his works. One question that is particularly troubling is why inmates did not revolt against such treatment. Levi poses a crucial question for a later generation to illustrate the plight of the Jews on the eve of the Holocaust: Why are people not leaving Europe now under the threat of a possible nuclear holocaust?
The Drowned and the Saved shows Primo Levi to be one of the great masters of modern prose. His style and tone produced a stunning combination of cool, dispassionate description, uncompromising honesty, righteous indignation, extremely vivid imagery, and an uncanny ability to relate the past to the present.
Levi clearly belongs in the classical tradition. He writes with great clarity without oversimplifying the complexities of his forbidding subject. His prose is concise, balanced, carefully molded, yet...